P.J. Hairston hits his stride in his sophomore year

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Though he grew up 50 miles down I-40 from Chapel Hill, sophomore P.J. Hairston admits that he didn’t always want to be a Tar Heel.

No, Hairston didn’t grow up dreaming of putting on a baby blue uniform and sinking long-range shots on the hallowed hardwood of the Smith Center.

Instead, the Greensboro native was a fan of a school 8 miles farther down the road. Hairston grew up idolizing the likes of Mike Dunleavy and Jason Williams, two of Duke’s most prolific players of the early 2000s.

But around his late middle school years, Hairston started to change his mind.

“When middle school got here, that’s when I was like OK, now I realize who I really like, because my mom used to always kill me about it,” Hairston said.

By the time he was being recruited as the No. 4 shooting guard in his class, Hairston began seriously considering joining Roy Williams’ club.

While he was being courted by Williams, the coach of his childhood team was also hot on his trail.

But coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff made one crucial mistake — they addressed their letters to T.J. Harrison.

“Well of course I got beat down for that one because I saw they didn’t spell my name right,” Hairston said. “But it is what it is. I’m pretty much done with that.”

And partly thanks to that one spelling error, Saturday night Hairston will suit up in a lighter blue uniform, ready to face his childhood team on a court that’s just a few miles away from where he expected to be.

Cracking the lineup

After a hot start to his freshman season — in which he made 3-pointers in eight of his first nine games — one might think that nearly a year later Hairston would have cemented his spot in the starting five.

But on Dec. 29, the guard took the court as a starter for the first time, shoved in the spotlight after Reggie Bullock sustained a concussion.

“(Bullock) told P.J. that he didn’t have to be anyone else, just be yourself,” Williams said after UNC’s win against UNLV. “He played 32 minutes, a few more minutes than he usually plays. He did a lot of good things for us defensively. “

If he was nervous in his first start, his stat line didn’t reflect it. Hairston knocked down half of his field goals for 15 points.

Even though he was the second-leading scorer for UNC, the start would be his only until a month and a half later.

The Davis effect

Back in 2011, it didn’t take Hairston long to erase the memories of his early freshman season success.

Hairston was in a slump.

In the third game of league play, the Tar Heels took their infamous trip to Tallahassee. The team took a 33-point beatdown, and Hairston missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

It didn’t improve from there for the former sharpshooter, and he knocked down only 11 of his 58 3-point attempts in the remaining 20 games of the season.

“Last year, at times when I shot the ball, I was just like, ‘I know this isn’t going in’ after it came out of my hands,” Hairston said.

Enter former Tar Heel guard Hubert Davis.

After assistant coach Jerod Haase left to fill the head coaching position at Alabama-Birmingham, Williams added Davis, a college basketball analyst, to his gaggle of assistant coaches.

Even before the start of the next season, Davis’ extra attention to Hairston’s shot paid dividends in the N.C. Pro-Am during the summer. Hairston showed off his new-look shot in the Pro-Am, dropping 49 points in a playoff game.

Keeping his spot

On Feb. 11, two days removed from the loss to Miami and two days away from the first meeting with Duke, Hairston was met with a surprise at practice.

In an unorthodox move, Williams took big man Desmond Hubert out and inserted an undersized Hairston at forward.

Hairston responded to his new role by tying his career high with 23 points in a career-high 34 minutes on the court in Durham. He also silenced critics who doubted his rebounding ability by grabbing eight boards — seven coming on the offensive end.

Though Williams was noncommittal after the game about keeping Hairston in the lineup, the following Saturday, Hairston was once again introduced as a part of the starting corps.

If the game against Virginia was Hairston’s audition for a permanent starting spot, then he nailed the role, no understudy needed.

He played all but 11 minutes and scored 29 points — both a career high and the most points scored by a Tar Heel all season.

Those performances against Duke and Virginia were enough to earn him co-ACC Player of the Week honors.

Since moving into the starting lineup, Hairston has averaged 17.6 points. He’s also knocked down a 3-pointer in 27 straight games — the longest active streak in the ACC.

“My confidence is through the roof right now,” Hairston said. “I feel like anytime I shoot the ball, it’s going in.”

As a shooting guard in the four spot, he bewilders opponents and forces them to make uncomfortable adjustments on defense to accommodate a third versatile scoring threat.

“Teams have to worry about Reggie on the 3-point line, James Michael (McAdoo) on the post, getting into the lane and finishing at the rim,” Hairston said after Sunday’s win against Florida State. “They have to box him and Reggie out. Then there’s me.”

“It’s like a triple barrel gun — all of us shooting at the same time. It’s hard to stop us.”

A personal rivalry

Two years later, Hairston isn’t wearing royal blue. He’s not a streaky shooter. And he certainly isn’t a benchwarmer.

No, sometime before 9 p.m. Saturday in the Dean E. Smith Center, Hairston will pull on a jersey with “Hairston” over the number 15 and argyle and Carolina blue trim lining the edges of a crisp, white uniform.

He’ll be facing his childhood team as a more well-rounded and consistent player than he was entering college.

And, at 9 p.m. Saturday, under the jerseys of the Tar Heel greats who have gone before him, P.J. Hairston will show Krzyzewski just how far T.J. Harrison has come.

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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